Motorists have faced renewed calls to stop panic buying fuel, as the UK government and an industry association insisted the shortage at thousands of petrol stations was diminishing, but Labour has called for key workers to get priority at the pumps.
Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, said there were “very tentative signs of stabilisation” in forecourt storage, but admitted it would take time for that to affect the size of vehicle queues as people’s behaviour slowly adjusted.
He added that “the sooner we can all return to our normal buying habits, the sooner the situation will return to normal”.
Meanwhile, the Petrol Retail Association announced that there were “early signs that the crisis at pumps is ending”. Its executive director, Gordon Balmer, said that as of Tuesday, 37% of its roughly 5,500 members had reported being out of fuel – with the proportion “likely to improve further over the next 24 hours”.
He blamed a shortage of heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers – a problem that has seen ministers put the Army on standby to drive fuel tankers.
Meanwhile, Labour has suggested key workers should be prioritised for fuel to ensure teachers and doctors are not prevented from being able to do their jobs. The Guardian has learned that several NHS appointments for cancer patients at University College London hospital were rescheduled “owing to the national fuel supply” issue.
Speaking from his party’s annual conference in Brighton, Keir Starmer said ministers had “reduced the country to chaos as we track from crisis to crisis”.
The haulage sector had been left “beyond frustrated” and with the government “denying there’s a problem, then blaming somebody else, and then coming up with a half-baked plan”, Starmer claimed.
He suggested giving priority for fuel to key workers this week and issuing more visas for lorry drivers for at least six months instead of just three. “We have to take action today,” Starmer said, adding: “This problem was predictable and predicted and the Government has absolutely failed to plan.”
Jon Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, told the Guardian that people could suffer or die as a result of a lack of access to care or treatment. “We have healthcare workers, care assistants, nurses and doctors desperately worried that they won’t make it to the bedside of their sick patients,” he said.
“We have people at home who rely on a healthcare assistant or community nurse coming to visit them on a daily basis and their representative bodies are calling for a plan.
“Health secretary Sajid Javid cannot keep his head down and hope this blows over. He’s got to get a grip on this, show some leadership … If people cannot get to their patients, people obviously will suffer.”
And Luke Pollard, the shadow environment secretary, urged ministers to stop blaming the public for the situation. Instead, he claimed that Boris Johnson’s “toxic recipe of denial” and “boosterism” about labour shortages were at fault.
Pollard told the Guardian: “This is a playbook we’ve seen from the government for every crisis. Deny there’s a problem. Fail to plan for the problem. Blame the public for the problem. Blame someone else and then call in the army. It is utter incompetence.”
It comes after Downing Street said on Monday that army drivers would be ready to help deliver petrol and diesel on a short-term basis, but stopped short of an immediate deployment, even though some essential workers have not been able to carry out their jobs without fuel.
Tobias Ellwood, the chair of parliament’s defence select committee, has said the army should be mobilised, not just put on standby, to regain public confidence.
“The country wants to see the government is in command and it has a clear cross-Whitehall plan,” he told Sky News. “We have gone from 1% fuel pump shortages to 90% so altering people’s buying behaviour to prevent the panic-buying and going back to previous purchasing patterns requires regaining the confidence of the nation.”